Troubadour of the American West: an exemplar of the frontier life he wrote about, author Louis L'Amour celebrated the honorable individualism of the men and women who settled the American West.
--Louis L'Amour, from his memoir Education of a Wandering Man
At the age of 12, Louis Dearborn LaMoore decided that schooling was interfering with his education. The last of seven children (two of whom died quite young), Louis was born on March 22, 1908, and was raised in a household full of books. As a young child, Louis developed a wide-ranging curiosity and omnivorous appetite for reading. By the time he took himself out of school, Louis had already begun a detailed study of history and the natural sciences, as well as the lore of distant lands. His expanding desire for knowledge and experience made it increasingly difficult to be chained to a desk in a classroom.
Louis was also enchanted with the stories of the western frontier told by uncles who paid frequent visits to the LaMoore household in Jamestown, North Dakota. Some had been itinerant cowboys, or successful ranchers. Others had fought in the Civil War, or in Indian campaigns. As hungry as he was for knowledge, Louis found that he craved adventure just as much. Much later in life, he would tell his children that "adventure is just a romantic name for trouble."
Adventure thrust itself on the LaMoore household shortly after Louis decided to end his formal education. After a series of bank failures devastated the midwestern economy, Louis's father, Dr. L.C. LaMoore, uprooted the family and hit the road in search of financial security.
Thus began what amounted to a decades-long apprenticeship as an observer, historian, and chronicler of America's western culture. Writing as Louis L'Amour (he preferred the original spelling, rather than his father's anglicized version), he would go on to become one of our nation's most prolific and widely read novelists. At the time of his death in 1988, he had 90 novels to his credit, and an estimated 200,000,000 copies of his works were in print. L'Amour's contributions to our national culture earned a National Gold Medal from Congress in 1983, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.
Louis L'Amour's detractors complain that his stories tend to be formulaic. His heroes are, almost without exception, stoic, physically imposing men of unbending principle; his female characters are strong-willed women who can take care of themselves but prefer to be cared for by the heroes. While the standard L'Amour hero is a wiry loner, his typical villain is well-fed, smugly corrupt, and politically connected--seeking to enrich himself through intimidation and manipulation, rather than through personal initiative and industry.
Granted, L'Amour didn't invest his literary creations--men such as Chick Bowdrie, Conagher, Kilkenny, Hondo, or his version of Hopalong Cassidy--with nuance, angst, or self-doubt. The same could be said of many of the characters that inhabit his Sackett series (that multi-generation epic, taken as a whole, has attracted serious critical comparisons to the works of Zola and Faulkner).
But this doesn't illustrate a lack of literary skill on L'Amour's part. Rather, it reflects his appreciation for the character traits--such as personal honor, physical courage, self-reliance, and discipline--he found so abundantly represented in his study of the men and women who tamed the American West.
"L'Amour stresses the endangered American virtues of violent patriotism," points out literary critic Robert L. Gale. "He shows us the values of fighting for family, home, region, country, the frontier way of life.... [He] reinforces our notion that the fading American way of life--nothing less than the dramatic destiny of a westering people--has been presented with justifiable pride."
L'Amour's distinctive literary style, continued Gale, "evolved out of a humble adolescence, a rollicking early youth marked by jobs in various fields and aboard many ships, global war, and decades of intense writing." In a very real sense, L'Amour lived much of what he wrote. Through L'Amour's novels, commented his daughter Angelique, "each reader has met a part of my father. Each hero has a bit of Dad's experience that makes him who he is."
Fisticuffs and Inspiration
By the time the LaMoore family left Jamestown in 1923, most of the children had left home. Louis's sole remaining sibling was an adopted brother named John, described in one account as "a spunky street fighter from New York and an example of a natural survivor, quick of wit and sharp of tongue." Louis emulated those traits, and learned how to defend himself with his fists. Those skills proved useful as he made his way west--skinning cattle in west Texas, baling hay in New Mexico, working in mines in Arizona and Nevada. Like the characters who would inhabit his stories, Louis found himself embroiled in more than a few fights.
As a youngster, Louis had received boxing lessons from his father, and he had the ambivalent blessing of older brothers eager to act as tutors. When he was 14, he began studying under professional fighters, and occasionally was able to supplement his family's meager income with a purse earned in a prizefight.
"Fighters came from everywhere, but the best ones always came out of the ghettos or the mean streets," wrote Louis in his memoir. "Money was hard to come by, and jobs paid little, yet if a boy could fight, he often had a ticket to the top, or hoped he did. Nearly every small town had someone who believed he was a fighter, and some of them were good."
"Many of my fights were in tank towns such as these, where I was a stranger or a new arrival facing a local boy who was popular," he continued. "To win at all, one had to win decisively.... There was not much money to be made fighting in small towns, but any money was good money to me in those rough years." Since the young men with whom Louis fought were motivated by the same combination of pride and desperation, the four-round matches he fought were often bitter, vicious contests. "That is one of the reasons the fights in his books seem so real," commented Louis's daughter Angelique. "I get the feeling Dad actually delivered and received those punches."
By the time he was 16, L'Amour was a broad-shouldered, thick-chested 6'1" figure who looked roughly a decade older. Desperate to find work, Louis would often quietly abet misunderstandings about his age. "I spent my first years making people think I was older than I was," he recalled in a 1980 Writer's Digest interview. "Now I'm working just as hard at keeping people from guessing my age."
While drifting through New Mexico in 1924, Louis had an experience that would be recreated, in various forms, in several of his later novels.
"I was a stranger in another town, sixteen but passing as twenty-four, hunting any kind of a job that could be done with two hands," Louis recalled shortly before his death in 1988. "A stranger and alone, I drew comment from some rowdies. Maybe they were decent enough fellows most of the time, but they were just feeling their oats that day. One word led to another, and one of them, under the mistaken belief that he was a fighter, selected me for a demonstration. No doubt he wished to augment a reputation he already had, or create one he wished to have."
Louis was hardly the timid type, but he also wasn't one to borrow trouble. Furthermore, he knew that breaking a hand in a street fight would make it more difficult to find a job. If he had simply walked away, however, "the chances were that they would follow, and I was young enough to wish not to be considered a coward." Accordingly, he squared off with his older tormentor. Slipping a roundhouse punch to the head, Louis dug a fight into the man's midsection. "When that punch landed the way it did," L'Amour recalled, "he knew and I knew the fight was over, but he dared not quit in front of his friends."
After Louis landed a second right to the midsection, two of his opponent's friends moved in to help. They were intercepted by two local cowpunchers, who quietly advised them to leave well enough alone. Leveling his opponent with a third blow, Louis walked away quickly, "pausing only to thank the two cowboys."
"They were, as it happened, cousins," recalled L'Amour. "Two rawboned, lean-bodied young men, one of them twenty-one, the other a year or two older." They provided Louis with a horse and invited him to join them for supper. "That night before a campfire we discussed the events of the morning, and [one of them] commented, 'We never get into fights.' 'You're lucky,' I agreed. 'It isn't luck,' his cousin suggested, 'it's our family. There s thirteen boys in his family and sixteen in mine. If they tackle any one of us they'll have to whip us all.'"
This incident, L'Amour recalled decades later, inspired his stories about the Sackett family, of whom one character (in Ride the River) would say: "If you step on one Sackett's toes, they all come running."
From his teens to his early 30s, Louis continued his self-defined studies as an itinerant laborer and scholar. For years he followed the hobo's path, hopping freight trains and hitch-hiking in search of work and sometimes sleeping in grain bins or lumberyards. On reaching the West Coast, he hired out as a merchant seaman, visiting China, Japan, Borneo, and other exotic locales. But he always found time to read. Quite often his belly went unfilled after he had spent his wages to buy books.
"In pursuing my education, I had been reading approximately one hundred books a year," he later recalled. "By that I mean books completed, and it says nothing of books I simply dipped into or simply referred to from time to time." L'Amour's memoir contains a detailed bibliography of the books he read during his "yondering" years of 1930-1935. His interests ranged from Homer to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Ancient texts like the Hindu Baghavad Gita are listed alongside contemporary works such as the science fiction of H.G. Wells and compilations of pulpy detective stories. Interestingly, the literary style Louis would come to define--the American western--is poorly represented on his list.
Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising, since the western wasn't the first style at which Louis tried his hand. In the late 1920s and 1930s, L'Amour began to submit poems and short stories to various publications. Poetry, he found, "didn't pay at all" (he collected his poems in a self-published volume entitled Smoke From This Altar, which was reissued posthumously). He enjoyed more success selling stories drawn on his personal experiences. And perhaps because of the fact that his time was at a premium, Louis eventually developed a taut, sinewy writing style, making both characters and settings vivid without leaving the reader mired in self-indulgent authorial detail.
"One is not, by decision, just a writer," L'Amour recalled. "One becomes a writer by writing, by shaping thoughts into the proper or improper words ... and by doing it constantly. There was so much I needed to learn that could only be learned by doing, by sitting down with a typewriter or a pen and simply writing. Most young writers waste at least three paragraphs and often three pages writing about their story rather than telling it. This was one of the many things I had yet to learn [as a young writer]."
L'Amour's professional fortunes took a definitive turn for the better in 1937 when he sold a short story entitled "Gloves for a Tiger" to Thrilling Adventures Magazine. But just as Louis began to find traction as an author in a very competitive business, World War II broke out. Inducted into the Army in 1942, Louis was too old to serve in a combat unit. Assigned to the Transportation Corps, Louis commanded a platoon of tankers that supplied fuel to planes and tanks in France and Germany. As was his habit, Louis used his time abroad to learn about the history and geography of the continent, and to collect impressions of remarkable men who would later emerge, in thinly fictionalized form, in his novels and other writings.
Bard of the West
Eager to resume his career after returning from the war, Louis discovered that the market for his adventure stories had dried up. "Pulp fiction" magazines that had once been his best customers were folding because of competition from radio, movies, and the infant medium called television. Reflecting new market trends, magazine editors were now clamoring for mysteries and westerns.
Since childhood, Louis had amassed a wealth of knowledge about the frontier. Beginning with the stories absorbed from uncles during his childhood, Louis had conducted a detailed scholarly survey of western history worthy of a doctoral degree. In addition to devouring hundreds of books, he had immersed himself in diaries, journals, collections of correspondence, newspaper archives, and other primary source documents from the late 19th century. His years as a hobo, mine worker, and itinerant laborer had provided him with intimate knowledge of the country; lengthy conversations with aging cowboys and gunfighters provided him with the raw material for scores of stories.
"They are out there by the thousands, wonderful stories," reflected L'Amour in Education of a Wandering Man. "Many have never gotten into the histories, although occasionally told by newspapers or in privately printed booklets. Stories of wagon-train massacres, buried treasures, gun battles, cattle roundups, border bandit raids--no matter where you go, east, west, north, and south, there are stories. People are forever asking me where I get my ideas, but one has only to listen, to look, and to live with awareness.... It is all there, waiting for any passerby."
Ironically, L'Amour's first novel, Westward the Tide, was sold to a British publisher. He sold four serialized novels based on the established character Hopalong Cassidy to a short-lived magazine, and then graduated to selling short stories and serials to Saturday Evening Post and Colliers.
In 1953, with Louis's career as a novelist beginning to blossom, Warner Bros. released Hondo, a film (originally presented in 3-D) produced by John Wayne, who also played the title character. Based on an early L'Amour short story entitled "Gift of Cochise," Hondo offered a remarkably sympathetic but unsentimental portrayal of American Indians, beginning with its title character--a half-Indian army scout who rides to the aid of a New Mexico frontierswoman and her son.
From Storyteller to Icon
By the mid-1950s, Louis had found a home in Los Angeles, where he continued to churn out novels and screenplays. For the remainder of his life, he followed a set routine: rising at around 5:30 a.m., writing until noon, returning to his typewriter an hour and a half later and working until he'd finished at least 5-10 publishable pages of typescript. He took great pride in both his prolific output and his ability to write without working off a detailed story outline--although at any time he kept preliminary notes for up to a half-dozen future projects. To reward himself for finishing his daily allotment of writing, Louis would retire to his home gymnasium, where he would skip rope, lift weights, and work on the heavy punching bag.
Due in no small measure to his financially deprived youth, Louis was reluctant to start a family until he was financially secure. In 1956, at the age of 48, Louis married an aspiring film actress named Katherine Elizabeth Adams. Their son Beau arrived in 1961, and he was joined by daughter Angelique in 1964. The L'Amour household also became home to Louis's library, which grew to include more than 10,000 books, as well as thousands of journals and periodicals. Eventually, Louis would acquire the largest private collection of primary source documents on the American West. And of course, he infected his children with his contagious love of books and insatiable appetite for learning.
"When I was very young," recalled Angelique, "Dad explained to me that he had a time machine in his office. Through books, he said, I could go anywhere at any time and be anyone at all without leaving the room. That is the magic of reading.... His office is lined wall to wall and floor to ceiling with books--all of them opportunities to learn and experience life through words."
Angelique learned to read "by watching and listening to my father. Starting from the time I could get out of a chair by myself, I would stand behind him and read over his shoulder." As an older child she read many of her father's published books for enjoyment. As a young adult, she came to recognize that her father's stories offered more than well-crafted diversion.
"Later, I finally understood what some of his fan mail had meant," wrote Angelique in A Trail of Memories. "Women who were raising children without husbands had written to him that they were raising their children on the teachings in his books. They'd told their sons that if they grew up to have the morals and values of his characters, they would be good men. Men to be proud of, men to shape the world."
Before his death, L'Amour received several honorary degrees and was appointed to several prominent advisory boards, including the Library of Congress's Center for the Book. He also devoted much of his time and a great deal of money to two worthy projects that never came to fruition: A "Library of Americana," collecting memoirs, diaries, and other historical documents; and "Shalako," a privately financed recreation of a 19th-century western town, what L'Amour called a "Western Williamsburg."
Louis L'Amour, insisted film producer Saul David, was "the only movable piece of Mount Rushmore." His artistic talent, unabashed love for America's cultural heritage, and simple personal decency earned similarly effusive praise from iconoclastic writer Harlan Ellison.
"Louis L'Amour was the kind heart of America--the walking, talking, smiling, and story-telling best of what we like to think we really are," wrote Ellison in a 1992 eulogy.
To the end of his life, continued Ellison, L'Amour "remained a speaker for courage, ethics, friendship, craft, and independence.... Louis L'Amour was the best of us, with our eyes lifted and our hands ready for work, without meanness in our hearts or laziness in our bones. He was the pencil sketch used to make all those great James Montgomery Flagg posters of the Spirit of America, with sleeves rolled up and honesty burning in the eyes."
Only those acquainted with Ellison's caustic opinions about practically everything could fully appreciate the magnitude of the honor he paid to L'Amour's memory.
L'Amour referred to himself as a "troubadour of the West." But he didn't simply sing praises to our frontier heritage. He was an American archetype--a self-made man who honored the culture that rewards industry and honest effort. Well has it been said that, for all of his ingenuity as a storyteller, L'Amour never wrote a fictional story more interesting than the life he lived.
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|Title Annotation:||History--American Spirit|
|Author:||Grigg, William Norman|
|Publication:||The New American|
|Date:||Mar 21, 2005|
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